On this day 12 months ago began a story that has touched the world. The first case of COVID-19.
COVID-19 is one of the few events in our lifetime that have impacted on the entire world. In so many ways we are so very lucky to be living on this Island called Australia. For me, even luckier to be living in a country town.
For me, from a purely business context I witnessed businesses reflecting the same behaviours in business as people did in life. Some went into lockdown, others took on the challenge.
My customers did a bit of both. The ones I continued to get work from realised the new normal before others, we all came to the same conclusion in the end. Get on with it the best way you can – in a little way or a big way.
For a big chunk of my business – facilitation and training – that meant jumping on Zoom or some equivalent. Which I loved and loathed. I loved it because I could be out in the paddock one minute and add some lipstick to get on a call. I loathed it because I am a belly to belly person who feeds off the energy of others. It’s hard to get energy from Zoom.
Then there became the most used expression of 2020 – “you are on mute!” In the beginning – that mattered, by the end videos and voices were turned off. People were distracted and hence another new term was coined Zoom gloom.
This fatigue of course also applies if you’re using Google Hangouts, Skype, FaceTime, or any other video-calling interface. The unprecedented explosion of their use in response to the pandemic created an unofficial social experiment. We had to accept what many people already knew – we can work remotely and virtual interactions can be extremely useful. What we did not know is that but they can also be extremely hard on the brain.
As humans we communicate even when we are quiet. During an in-person conversation, the brain focuses partly on the words being spoken, but it also derives additional meaning from dozens of non-verbal cues, body language, facial cues, hand movements, eye focus.
These cues help us paint a holistic picture of what is being conveyed and what’s expected in response from the listener.
These cues help us develop emotional intimacy.
On a video call, our senses are impaired both as a presenter and as a listener. We can try to glean cues from the words instead but it does not always work. If a person is framed only from the shoulders up, the possibility of viewing hand gestures or other body language is reduced. If the video quality is poor, any hope of gleaning something from little facial expressions is diminished. And for somebody who might depend on those non-verbal cues, it can be impossible to follow a conversation.
Multi-person screens can magnify this exhausting problem. The gallery view—where all meeting participants appear Brady Bunch-style—challenges the brain’s central vision, forcing it to decode so many people at once that no one comes through meaningfully, not even the speaker.
Multi-tasking does not work in these situations as it means we are not full devoting ourselves to anything in particular. Psychologists call this continuous partial attention, and they have worked out it applies as much to virtual environments as it does to real ones. We get distracted!
We also become less collaborative – speaker and listener develops rather than robust debate. Parallel conversations are impossible and there is little bouncing off each other. This drives me insane. I hate not having feedback and as a result, I fill the silence with more talk and get exhausted doing so!
But I am not alone – as it works the brain becomes overwhelmed by unfamiliar excess stimuli while being hyper-focused on searching for non-verbal cues that it can’t find. It’s just not me.
I love working remotely – but give me a room full warm bodies anyday.